Through a clever gender narrative swap, graphic design student, Shreya Arora, subverts the traditionally patriarchal comic book covers
‘The Sensational Sexism’, says the title of a comic book cover which has a semi-naked, mask-wearing Spiderman, posing with a beach ball. You have to give the cover a second glance to confirm if the overtly sexual figure is a female or not. However, if you scroll down, the original cover of Marvel’s The Sensational She-Hulk glares back at you with similar elements as the former, only here in the place of Spiderman, there is an exaggeratedly sexualised illustration of She-Hulk.
‘Sexism in Comic Book Art’, Shreya Arora, a 21-year-old graphic design student’s second and latest project, provides a revisionist take on comic book covers that are blatantly sexist in their presentation. By replacing the female characters on the cover with their male counterparts, Arora intends to gauge the readers’ reaction on seeing their ‘venerable’ male role models unnecessarily sexualised, for once.
During an exchange semester in France, the Mumbai-based artist who currently studies in National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, connected with women batch mates who wished to travel to India. However, this desire, they mentioned, was heavily overshadowed by concerns about safety. Though Arora dismissed this argument as yet another stereotype that bolstered the negative perception commonly associated with India, it got her thinking. A few months later, by focussing on victim blaming and sexual objectification, Arora brought about ‘The Good Victim Starter Pack’ and ‘Sexism in Comic Book Art’.
Arora says that the portrayal of She-Hulk is in stark contrast to the characterisation of her male counterpart Hulk. Another representation of She-Hulk in one of the original covers by Marvel has the protagonist in an extremely vulnerable position. “In this cover, She-Hulk is portrayed with no agency. She seems to be really humiliated, vulnerable and awkward. These are things that should never be sexualised, yet they are. How can you find a woman’s humiliation to be sexy?” asks Arora who specifically looks at ideas that people have been conditioned to believe and questions them to consequently start a discourse.
“Initially I had thought about looking at iconic covers with superheroes and recreating them with super heroines. But I realised that while it would make for really good art, it would not have the shock value required to start a conversation,” says Arora who collaborated with Buzzfeed India for three illustrations out of the six in this series. While working on the project Arora had also noticed that the covers of the relatively new comics did not match the content inside. “Unlike the comic books of the 1980s with misogynistic narrative, the new comics have stories that are quite empowering, but the covers are always meant to sensationalise and immediately attract readers,” says Arora.
The young illustrator’s maiden project which took shape in May is another sarcastic take on victim blaming; it also looks at how the Indian society reacts to serious issues such as rape, marital rape and domestic violence. The series, displayed in the form of a magazine title ‘LOGUE kya kahenge’, explores ‘The Good Victim Starter Pack: This season’s hottest fashion tips to avoid victim blaming’. “These are certain concepts that have been internalised and the first step is to identify them and start a conversation,” says Arora who believes that revisionist works are powerful tools, increasingly explored of late.
Arora also points out that an artist’s decision to revision someone else’s work should direct people to look at why he/she is doing it in the first place. “It’s not really about the style; what I like to draw and how I do it, it’s more about what I am trying to communicate and how I do it effectively,” says Arora.
Though the comic book series received backlash from staunch Marvel and DC fans, the general response has been very encouraging according to Arora. Though she feels that she should work more on content with global implications, the artist says that it is also important to look at the Indian context without being critical. “A lot of revisionist work which has come out recently looks at the Indian context very derogatorily. This is again propagating a stereotype. That should change,” says Arora who believes that a revisionist work’s intent is to make art as inclusive as possible.
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